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Consequences of Credit Card Default

Please answer our four questions relating to credit card default and its consequences.

We have 4 questions about our credit card debt and its impact on our credit score:

  1. If you fail to pay your credit card bills, what are the consequences and how long will your credit score be affected?
  2. If you file for bankruptcy, are there ways to speed up the recovery of your credit score?
  3. Does it matter/help if you have one credit card for say, $100,000 or 10 credit cards with $10,000 balances, in terms of debt consolidation and consequences of not paying them?
  4. In terms of long-term consequences (credit score, ability to get credit, employment, etc), which bankruptcy hurts you the most? What about bankruptcy vs. foreclosure?

Thank you for any advice!

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Bill's Answer
192 Comments
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Updated: Oct 23, 2014

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Highlights

  • Review how an account moves to charge-off status.
  • Examine the debt collection process.
  • Understand ways you can rebuild your credit.

I answer your four questions about the consequences of defaulting on a credit card debt below.

1. Charge-Off

As with most consumer debts, failing to make payments on your credit card accounts in a timely manner will likely result in the lenders reporting late payments to the major U.S. consumer credit reporting agencies — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. After receiving no payment for 6-8 months, the creditors will be required to “charge off” the debts, meaning that they must remove the debt from their “accounts receivable” books; a charge-off does not mean that you are not liable for the debt, only that the creditor. Charge-offs will appear as derogatory items on your credit reports, and will likely cause a significant reduction in your credit score. To read more about credit, credit scoring, and credit reports, I encourage you to visit the Bills.com at Credit Information & Resources page.

Collections

While the credit problems associated with financial hardship are an issue for consumers who are planning to make a large purchase in the near future, the more immediate consequence experienced by most consumers are the collection activities undertaken by many creditors. You will likely receive collection calls and letters from the creditor directly. If you are still unable to pay the debt after several months, the creditor is likely to refer the account to a third-party collection agency.

Third-party collectors are known to be much more aggressive in their collection tactics than original creditors, so do not be surprised if the calls become more persistent, or even threatening. Thankfully, federal law, the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act, requires third-party debt collectors to stop calling you if you send a written demand to cease communication. You can find an example cease communication demand letter at the Bills.com Debt Do-it-yourself page.

Quick Tip

The Bills.com Debt Coach tool can give you no-nonsense advice about your debt resolution options, including the cost and time to debt freed for each option.

Judgments

In some cases, when all other collection efforts fail, a creditor will decide to file a lawsuit against a consumer for his or her unpaid credit card account. In my experience, only a small percentage of delinquent accounts end up in litigation, but it is a possibility about which you should be aware. If one of your creditors sues you, the court will likely issue a judgment in the creditor’s favor. Depending on your state’s laws regarding the enforcement of judgments, the creditor may be able to garnish your wages, levy your bank accounts, or take other action to enforce its judgment.

Most delinquent consumer debts do not result in litigation, so you should not be overly concerned, but if a creditor does file a lawsuit against you, you may need to consider establishing a repayment plan, or even filing for bankruptcy protection, to prevent further enforcement action.

2. Rebuilding Credit

If you decide to file for bankruptcy protection, the case will appear on your credit reports for ten years from the date of filing, and will likely cause significant damage to your credit rating, especially for the first few years after filing. As time passes, credit scoring models and most lenders give less weight to older derogatory items in favor of newer positive trade lines when reviewing a consumer’s credit history. You need new credit lines so you can establish positive payment history to counterbalance the negative impact of your bankruptcy filing. Establishing a positive payment history can be difficult for people who have had past credit problems, especially those forced to file for bankruptcy protection.

Consider two options. First, if you know someone with an established credit history who will co-sign a loan with you, you may be able to obtain a loan and start building your credit.

Second, if you cannot find someone to co-sign an unsecured loan, apply for a secured credit card. Secured credit cards require you to deposit cash in an account with the credit card issuer. The credit line available on the card is equal to the amount of cash on deposit. This may sound strange; why not just spend your own cash? Secured credit cards report timely payments to the credit bureaus, which helps establish a positive credit history. To read more about bankruptcy, and the alternatives available to consumers, visit the Bills.com debt help page.

3. Credit Score Impact

From a credit score perspective, it is better to default on one large account than defaulting on many small accounts. Although the large account would carry a heavy weight, the many small delinquencies cause more damage than one big delinquency. But that's not the total picture. As for debt settlement programs, generally the opposite is true — the more accounts you have, the more flexibility the debt servicing company has in negotiating with your creditors. If you have only one account, if the creditor is unwilling to negotiate, the whole strategy is a bust. However, if you have multiple creditors, one or two creditors’ refusal to cooperate will not defeat the plan as a whole.

4. Bankruptcy

Both types of bankruptcy (Chapter 7 and Chapter 13), as well as foreclosure actions, are viewed as serious derogatory items on consumer credit histories. I cannot say that one is “worse” than the other, as each has its own serious consequences. However, I can tell you that a foreclosure action is often more costly for consumers; in addition, many consumers find that they must file for bankruptcy after foreclosure to prevent further collection action by their mortgage lender.

Editor's note

When we wrote this answer originally, we knew a lot less about the impact negative events have on a credit score than we do now. See the Bills.com article Short Sale, Foreclosure & Your Credit Score to learn more.

If you face foreclosure and/or considering filing for bankruptcy protection, I strongly encourage you to consult with an attorney in your area to discuss your financial difficulties. Your attorney will review the details of your situation and help you decide what actions are appropriate for you and your family.

I wish you the best of luck in resolving the financial problems you are facing.

I hope this information helps you Find. Learn & Save.

Best,

Bill

Bills.com

192 Comments

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  • BT
    Apr, 2014
    Braeden
    I have one credit card and I owe $3,000 on it. I'm thinking about defaulting due to the fact that I have no other delinquencies. It's through Discover. What are my options? It'd take me longer to pay it off than it would affect my credit score.
    0 Votes

    • BA
      Apr, 2014
      Bill
      What you seem to be leaving out in your assessment is the risk of Discover pursuing collections if you stop paying. Discover is known as an aggressive creditor when it comes to going after delinquent accounts. You risk being sued and having wages garnished or bank accounts seized, if they sue you and get a judgment against you.

      I recommend that you speak to a credit counseling program to see if any interest rate reduction would speed up the time it takes you to pay off the debt.
      0 Votes

  • JG
    Mar, 2014
    John
    My parents are in a lot of credit card debt and my father continues to make the minimum payments but it eating away at their income to survive. They are on their last lap of life and I want them to stop paying so they can afford an assisted living facility. Is this the best course??? My father refuses to file for bankruptcy and told me that when he is dead my mom can just do it. Help me out
    0 Votes

    • BA
      Mar, 2014
      Bill
      You can't compel your father to file bankruptcy, as you know, even if doing so was in his best interest. If he needs a lower monthly payment to improve his cash flow, he should look at:
      1. Consumer Credit Counseling
      2. Debt Settlement

      Stopping payment is only a reasonable strategy if his income is not subject to a garnishment, were a judgment obtained, and he could protect assets and bank accounts from attachment, too.

      0 Votes

  • EB
    Mar, 2014
    Edna
    My aunt send her life savings, her money received from her reverse mortgage, and ran up thousands and thousands in Credit Card debt. She sent all this through an overseas internet scammer. None of it is retrievable. She is widowed, obese, 64 yrs old, has additional health problems, and only her soc sec to live on and pay these debts~ her soc sec barley pays her utilities and food. What are her options?
    0 Votes

    • BA
      Mar, 2014
      Bill
      Gather your aunt's family and discuss consulting with a lawyer about creating some sort of spendthrift trust to put someone else in charge of your aunt's money so that her essential needs are taken care of.
      0 Votes

  • DW
    Sep, 2013
    Dion
    I defaulted on a few credit cards (department store, $1000 and less). Last payment was May 2013. I'll be getting the money to settle these accounts probably the middle of January 2014. A couple of the cards are with GE capital/amazon, one for about $1000 as of today (includes late fees), and the other is GE capital/ Walmart for about $700. I have another is a Bloomingdales for about the same amount as the amazon card. The other cards are pretty small, under $500. So I have a little over 4 months until I'll have the money to pay these accounts. My question is, how long do creditors/collection agencies usually hold on to these size debts before they sue? I'm really hoping that I can go 4 months without a lawsuit.
    0 Votes

    • BA
      Sep, 2013
      Bill
      Typically, the retailers hold off until after charge off (which is usually after 6 full months of delinquency) before they look to litigate. Also, that 5th month, depending on the retailer, is also the best month to offer a settlement. If your last payment was May, then we’re looking at June as the first month of delinquency so you’ll be cutting it close if you plan to pay in January as the 6th month would be December.
      0 Votes

    • DW
      Sep, 2013
      Dion
      Thanks for your reply. Do they mostly sue or do they usually give it to debt collectors first?
      0 Votes

    • BA
      Sep, 2013
      Bill
      Retailers are hit and miss with regards to litigation but what you have in your favor are the small balances. Each issuer has their different “thresholds” for pursuing legal actions. Typically, for balances under $1,500, they simply don’t waste their time.

      Although $1,500 is a good rule of thumb, we know of instances where collection agents filed actions against consumers in small claims courts for balances due of less than $500. We say this not to alarm you, but to simply say collection agents don't always follow rules of economic common sense when deciding whether to file a lawsuit against a consumer.
      0 Votes

    • DW
      Sep, 2013
      Dion
      Thank you so much for all of your help. Your advice is invaluable :)
      0 Votes

  • CW
    Aug, 2013
    Chris
    I am 16 years old and decided to apply for a credit card (stupid, I'm now aware) I lied about my age and income, but put my actual SSN, and was approved. I then (even stupider decision) ran up the bill, got approved for a second card and ran hthe bill up on that. After interest rates and all, I am about 1,100 dollars in debt over two cards. My question is: am I responsible for this debt considering I am underage? If so, what would be my best course of action to pay those off? I now have a job and am worried about my wages being garnished and etc.
    0 Votes

    • BA
      Aug, 2013
      Bill
      Minors can enter into contracts and do so often. Put another way, it's not illegal for either the minor or the other party (presumably an adult) to sign a contract. For example, if it was illegal for minors to sign contracts, there would be no child actors working in movies or television.

      The trick is enforcing a contract against a minor. Generally, courts consider minors incompetent or lacking in capacity to sign contracts. Courts, therefore, are reluctant to enforce contracts signed by by minors.

      Note my using qualifications here — generally and reluctant. Courts look at the facts of each case carefully. Let me add facts to what you included in your question. Let's say for the sake of argument you made no payments to the credit card issuers, and made statements indicating you never intended to. If so, the court may find you had fraudulent intent, and would have no hesitation to enforce the contract regardless of your age.

      Back to your facts. Here, you lied about your age and income in two credit card applications. It is likely neither credit card issuer were aware of your actual age. Let's say you didn't lie about your age and income for a moment. If the credit card issuers were aware you were 16 and had no or limited income, then they accepted the risk of issuing you a card with open eyes. Shame on them for signing a contract with a minor. However, you gave both issuers false information, and somewhere in the application is a promise that the information you submit is truthful and accurate. They didn't know they were dealing with a minor, and thought they were dealing with an adult with income. It's hard to fault the credit card issuers here. And it seems unfair for you to dupe the credit card issuers by claiming to be an adult then hide behind your age to avoid your liability. In this situation, I doubt a court would allow you to use your age as a defense in a lawsuit. Similarly, I foresee the court allowing the credit card issuers to enforce a judgment against you.

      By "enforce" I mean if either or both credit card companies file lawsuits against you, and your lack-of-capacity defense is not persuasive, the court will give the credit card companies a judgment in their favor. With the judgment in hand, the credit card companies would have the right to garnish your wages, levy your bank accounts, place a lien on any land you own, or ask the sheriff to seize your personal property.

      Consult with a lawyer who has consumer law experience. Finding and talking to a lawyer may seem like a frightening idea, but you need to do this to understand your rights and liabilities. Ignoring this problem will not make it go away and will only make the consequences worse.

      If you cannot afford a lawyer, call your county bar association and ask for the names of the organizations that provide no-cost legal services to people with low or no income in your area. Make an appointment with one of the organizations, and bring all of the documents and letters you have regarding the two credit cards debts to your meeting. The lawyer you meet will advise you accordingly.
      0 Votes